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What Seth Kantner (and Alaska) can learn from New York about conservation

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 31
  • Published January 30

Seth Kantner may be Alaska's greatest writer, but he stands alone — rural but not Native, irascibly individualistic, and, ultimately, not very persuasive in the important discussion about development in Northwest Alaska.

Kantner's piece in the Anchorage Daily News over the weekend was headlined as a criticism of New York City and slowly backed into its true purpose, opposing the state's proposed 211-mile road across the foothills of the Brooks Range, from the Dalton Highway west to a mining prospect at Ambler.

I also oppose the road. It would slice caribou habitat, tame precious wilderness, and consume public funds to enrich private owners of a company hoping to sell off mineral rights there. As currently conceived, Alaskans would be on the hook to pay back bonds for the road even if it is never used.

You don't need to be a wilderness romantic to see this is a bad project. In fact, too much romanticism could get you on the wrong track.

Kantner equated the appeal of the project to the $24 supposedly paid by the Dutch to the indigenous people of Manhattan Island, calling for the Inupiat people of the region to fight back.

"Every tribe, from the beginning of time, has had to ceaselessly defend its land," he wrote.

But in December, Willie Hensley, who, like Kantner, grew up in a sod house in Northwest Alaska, joined the board of Trilogy Metals, the company developing the Ambler Mining District and hoping to cash in on the state's credit with the road.

Hensley is a giant of the Native claims movement and a father of NANA Regional Corp., the key landowner at Ambler and at the Red Dog Mine, the world-scale zinc project that has been the region's economic powerhouse since the late 1980s.

Red Dog employs 600 NANA shareholders and has paid about $700 million in shareholder wages and dividends. That's more than $24. It is economic self-determination.

Whether you like it or not — and from my perspective, it's a mixed bag — the glass corporate buildings that intimidated Kantner in Manhattan are, in Alaska cities, owned and occupied by Alaska Natives.

Native executives and politicians often drive Alaska's development of oil, mining and timber, from Arctic Slope's support for offshore drilling to NANA's support for mining to Sealaska's support for clear-cutting old-growth forests.

Village or tribal Natives sometimes oppose these same projects, but their voices rarely overcome the consensus for development and profit at the companies they nominally own.

On the other hand, the Manhattanites Kantner demonizes are strong allies for conservation. They're the people who buy his books, and mine, elevating the spiritual value of these places.

They surely would share Kantner's distaste for subsistence hunters running down caribou with high-powered snowmachines and shooting them with semi-automatic rifles.

But is Kantner's careful stalking and killing more traditional or only more aesthetic?

A great Inupiaq whaler from the past once said that, if he could, he would mount a cannon on Point Barrow to hunt for whales rather than risk his people's lives in skin boats.

The Inupiat were ancient technologists. They survived in the Arctic by creating and using the best methods to get food, not the prettiest. Their culture was not about the tools they used, but the values of respect and sharing handed down by elders.

That practicality is unconnected to modern environmentalism.

Being a true environmentalist is distinctly impractical. It is altruistic. It means sacrificing to help the world, getting in return only what everyone else does. Or perhaps getting nothing, as few New Yorkers who contribute money to protect the Arctic will ever go there.

Those contributions pay the salaries of professional environmentalists who attend meetings, read reports and rally subsistence hunters — and journalists like me — to understand and oppose bad projects.

Among the contributors is my cousin and godfather, who lives in Manhattan. He spent his career in one of those intimidating Wall Street buildings. Now retired, he devotes his life to protecting the environment, with his money, time and heart.

After our last get together in the city, he and his wife climbed on a bus to head home to their apartment.

Cities are the most world's most sustainable form of human occupation. By concentrating people into dense housing and business areas, they achieve huge efficiencies for heating, cooling and transportation. They conserve land and open space by concentrating the human footprint.

Most New York City residents don't own cars. New York state has the lowest per capita car ownership in the U.S. Alaska is sixth from the highest, with more cars than people.

But our cars are just the start of our huge carbon emissions. Kantner alone added about 2,200 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent to the atmosphere on his round-trip flights from Kotzebue to JFK in New York. That's about what the average Alaskan driver emits in nine months.

Living in Alaska and flying, you can't avoid being one of the world's top carbon emitters.

But Trilogy Metal's president said his project will help. At a recent meeting on the Ambler Road, he led off with comments about the minerals aiding the world's switch to electric cars, as if that were his main goal.

I think that's ridiculous. We don't have to sacrifice the Brooks Range for electric cars.

But true lovers of Alaska must engage with these arguments. As is often said of Alaska Natives, non-Native environmentalists must also learn to walk in two worlds–hand-in-hand with allies whose values come from vastly different places.

I remember, when I was young, feeling about New York as Kantner describes in his piece. The space seemed claustrophobic and the people hyperactive.

Now I'm comfortable there and I see what's good about the city. New York is wonderful — exciting, rich with brilliant people, economically vibrant and truly diverse.

The city may be dirty, but it burdens the environment less than if those same people lived like Alaskans. From that perspective, we have plenty to learn from New York.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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